Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Calling it what it is...

This past Sunday, I had the honor and privilege of joining two dear friends, Catherine and Addison, to lead an adult Sunday school class at Myers Park Presbyterian Church about our We Walk Together Charlotte efforts. In case you don't know what WWTC is all about, here is a brief explanation. Back in 2015, just after the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, a group called Meck Min (Mecklenburg Ministries) began a series of  conversations here in Charlotte called "We Need to Talk." Held weekly for more than two months, those gatherings drew people from all over the city of Charlotte together to talk about race and racism, and to learn about the history of race and racism in Charlotte. They were powerful conversations that pushed all who attended, black, white, Latino, Asian, male, female, and everybody in between, to think and rethink our racial experiences and assumptions and find new ways to be a community. Catherine and Mary, two of the attendees of those early gatherings decided that they wanted to do more than talk. They decided to walk. To walk together. To map out 100 miles of walks in our fair city and get to know some of our Charlotte neighborhoods and some of our Charlotte neighbors. At one of the Meck Min gatherings, Catherine and Mary announced their plan and invited others to join. I was one of the first people to sign up. We started walking a couple of weeks later - and we are still walking. Now we walk on the 15th of each month and serve at a Charlotte non-profit organization on the 30th of every month. What a fantastic opportunity to walk, to talk, and to give of our time and energy to the needs of this city we call home.

Anyway, this past Sunday, three of the four main leaders of the WWTC group shared stories and entered into conversation with some folks at Catherine's church. Great group of people, challenging questions, piqued curiosities about what we can do to be better and more engaged members of our community. 

Following that class, I attended the 11 am "contemporary" service with Catherine and her husband. By contemporary, I mean they don't sing hymns from hymnbooks. Their music is accompanied by guitars, drums, and electronic keyboard, rather than pipe organ or grand piano. The sermon was transmitted electronically by the robe-clad senior pastor who was preaching at the traditional - read, hymn singing, choir led service - in the sanctuary to those of us in the contemporary space and contemporary service. At the time of the offering - which is both contemporary and traditional - a young man sang a song entitled "Call it Grace." 

Call it Grace
It's the light that pierces through youTo the darkest hidden place
It knows your deepest secrets
But it never looks away
It's the gentle hand that pulls you
From the judgment of the crowd
When you stand before them guilty
And you've got no way out
Some may call it foolish and impossible
But for every heart it rescues it's a miracle
It's nothing less than scandalous
This love that took our place
Just call it what it is
Call it grace
Call it grace

It's the breath that's breathing new life
Into what we thought was dead
It's the favor that takes orphans
Placing crowns upon their heads
It's the hope for our tomorrows
The rock on which we stand
It's a strong and mighty fortress
Even hell can't stand against

Some may call it foolish and impossible
But for every heart it rescues it's a miracle
It's nothing less than scandalous
This love that took our place
Just call it what it is
Call it grace Call it grace Call it grace

Amazing, Unshaking
This is grace, this is grace
Unchanging, Unfailing
This is grace, this is grace

Some may call it foolish and impossible
But for every heart it rescues it's a miracle
It's nothing less than scandalous
This love that took our place
Just call it what it is
Call it grace
In those brief moments, I heard what I now claim as my latest theme song. Mind blown. Tears flowing. My entire life has been an ongoing example of what this song so eloquently expresses:
Call it what it is - call it grace. 
I have known grace. Personally. So have you.
It's the friend who forgives you after you had an affair with her husband. It's the husband who forgives you after you gave your heart away to someone else. It's the classmate you forgive when she says something racist and mean - even though she didn't bother to apologize. It's the pastor who extends the right hand of fellowship to the person who has been most critical and insulting. It's the child who forgives you after you make yet another parenting faux pas. It's the business owner that doesn't kick you out of their establishment after you make a scene. It's the deep conviction that God loves you, even when you do all of the above and more. 
It's the peace that passes all understanding, even when the kanswer comes back, when the child is back in the hospital, when the ambulance drives away with someone you love in the back, when the police car drives away and everyone in your house is still alive and well, present and accounted for. 
It's the absolute, indefensible, unfathomable certainty that Jesus was talking to you when he said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" After you say, "No one, sir," he says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin." More than that, it is the unshakable knowledge that, even though I will never be able to leave my life of sin, Christ still does not condemn me. Christ loves me, forgives me, welcomes me back home, after each time I set out on my adventures in wandering so far from home. I call that what it is, I call it grace.
Grace is inexplicable.
Grace is unearned, unmerited favor.
Grace is knowing that you are seen in all your messiness - and loved anyway. Accepted anyway. Invited anyway. Held anyway.
How can you explain true forgiveness any other way?
How can you explain fearlessness in the face of injustice any other way? The ability to check your own prejudices and fears, and move forward into trust and welcome. The courage that walks back into the darkness to rescue others who are stranded there. The will to stay present when it would be far easier to say "I'm done. I'm out of here." The decision to walk away, but without acrimony, without gossiping, without inflicting damage on the one from whom you withdraw. Call it what it is, call it grace. 
Grace is miraculous.
Grace is scandalous.
Can forgiveness and welcome after infidelity be anything but miraculous and scandalous?
Can reconnection and reconciliation be anything but scandalous after acts of violence like the shooting in Charleston?
Just think about how often we ridicule and shake our judgmental heads when we think about people we know who have forgiven their unfaithful partners. Think about how often we plan revenge against those who have hurt us, our children, or other people we love. Scandalous. Miraculous. Call it what it is. Call it grace.
Lent is behind us. Easter is behind us.
But resurrection and new life, are before us and happening now.
Every day presents us with another opportunity to experience the fullness of life, the goodness of life, the grace of life. To give thanks. To stand in wonder and awe of the beauty of spring and all that it brings. It is also a time to acknowledge that not everyone is experiencing the hope of spring. Not everyone is excited about what they see ahead of them on this journey of life. 
 The mother of one of my son's former tennis competitors is dealing with breast kanswer again. One friend is back in the job market after leaving a position that left her depleted. A young mother I know is about to undergo a hysterectomy for recurrent kanswer. Anxiety issues have reared their ugly head for her. He is still reeling from the agony of divorce. They are mourning the loss of a dearly beloved dog they shared life with for twelve years. His post-surgical recovery isn't going as smoothly as everyone had hoped. He has already lost most of his mojo and isn't sure if he wants to exert any effort to maintain the little that remains. She is wondering how much more of her unfulfilling, uninspired, unsatisfying marriage she is willing to put up with. 
But grace still shows up. Grace still prevails. Grace shows up in the warm trays of delicious food that are brought by friends to feed the family. Grace shows up through conversations on phone lines and words of encouragement via text messages. Grace appears in the mailbox in the form of handmade cards and carefully chosen gifts. Grace is the ongoing prayers offered up to a loving, ever-present God by distant friends and family. Grace is the silent presence of people who know they cannot do anything to fix the problem, but they offer their silent shoulders and strong hands anyway. Grace is the wisdom of the spiritual director who listens closely, asks questions, and ushers you back out into the fray of life, reinforced, bolstered, and unexpectedly hopeful. Again and again. Call it what it is, call it grace. 
Grace is foolish and impossible.
Except that it happens every day. Every single day.
And it silences the wisest among us with its profundity.
My rescued, healed, spacious heart knows the miracle of its unfailing power and its unlikely persistence.
Grace restores my hope - which I lose huge chunks every day.
Grace reawakens my dreams - which I abandon every day in pursuit of far less noble desires.
Grace pulls me out of despair and fear,
out of doubt and rage.
Grace reminds me of the battles I have already won,
the fears I have already overcome,
and grace puts me back on the path to wholeness, healing, joy, and courage.

I don't know if there is any other name I can give it.
So I won't even try to come up with something clever or original.
Calling it what it is - call it grace. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

It's Friday...

Good Friday. Perhaps the least appropriately named day of the Christian calendar.
Nothing good about the day on which The One who Came To Live Among Us died.
Was unjustly accused. Tortured. Executed by the empire in which he lived.
Three of the Gospels say that upon his death, darkness fell for three hours.
From noon until three pm. Darkness. Sorrow.

Those who knew him best and followed him most closely were gobsmacked, shocked, horrified, and terrified. If the one who walked on water, fed five thousand, healed the sick, and raised the dead himself had died, then what hope was there for them?
What hope indeed?
So that Friday night, they scattered. They hid. They locked themselves away in a secret place.

Which is exactly what I do when I get scared or worried.
I hide. I lock myself away in the secret place of fear. Of doubt.
But in reality, it's not so secret. And I am not alone.
In fact, at those moments when I feel most afraid and most alone,
I am learning to open my eyes, lift my eyes, and
take in all the ways that goodness is showing up in the world and in my life.

Here are a couple of beautiful examples of hope and love and resurrection
right here in my home town.

The Grove is a church I have admired a great deal. The pastor there, Kate Murphy, is one of my pastoral mentors. Look at how they are showing love to their Muslim neighbors, to our Muslim neighbors. In response, the folks from the Muslim community center made dinner for the folks at The Grove last night. Because it was Maundy Thursday, the day on which we remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, because that is also the night on which many churches practice the ritual of foot washing, the folks from the Grove washed the feet of the Muslim people who had brought them dinner. So much beauty and grace, humility and courage, recognition and tenderness. We need more of this kind of welcome in this world at this time. My Colorado based friend, Kathy Escobar, wrote an encouraging and hope-filled blog post suggesting that we all do exactly what happened at the Grove last night: While the bombs drop, keep washing feet.

Here's a story of two young couples, connected by a donated kidney. Facing death, one young man was given the gift of life by another young man. Truly new life. Resurrection. The wife of the young man who received the kidney is a new friend of mine. Funny, courageous, exhausted, hopeful, and eternally grateful for her husband's new kidney.

Tonight, my spiritual heroes, Anthony and Toni Smith, will continue with their reconciliation work in Salisbury, North Carolina. One of their many activities is called "Night Crawlers." Every Friday night, they head out into the streets, together, walking, talking, praying, working and calling for peace in their city. Standing in the way of violence. Offering other options. Most importantly, walking together, both bringing and being peace in their city.

And tomorrow, the We Walk Together Charlotte group that I have been a part of for almost two years is heading out for another walk. If you're in Charlotte, please come join us. Let's walk and talk and get to know our city. Let's share stories of hope and grace, mercy and love. I don't know about you, but on this dark Friday night, on this dark day, I need some good stories and some good company on the road. I suspect you do too.

While I'm walking tomorrow morning, one of my beautiful nieces will be talking - on NPR - about her first album - Hard Won. She has worked so hard and is getting the acknowledgement and support she has always hoped for. Truly hard won. NPR, people!!! How cool is that!!!!

Deep gratitude. Deep breath. Deep sigh.

It's Friday. The end of a week in which our nation expressed our anger about the gas attacks in Syria by dropping bombs on two countries. At least, two. Because there are some people who still seem to believe that violence resolves violence.

The end of a week in which I spent time both alone and with the church family, remembering Peter's denial that he knew Jesus. Remembering Judas' betrayal of Jesus. Remembering the many times I have denied and betrayed Jesus and myself and life itself.

It's Friday. The day we remember what happened to the One many call Lord.
Body broken. Blood shed.
That was then.

This is now.
Bodies still being broken.
Blood still being shed.
Empire. Violence. Executions.
Greed. Thievery. Loss.
Injustice. Despair.
Life taken. Life given.
Hopes dashed. Hearts crushed.
Then and now.

It's Friday. But Sunday is coming.
Resurrection is coming.
New life is coming.
Hope is coming back.
But for now, tonight, darkness has fallen.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Wasted Beauty, Wasted Hope

Several weeks ago, back in February, we had a couple of weeks that were unseasonably warm. Flowers began to bloom. Trees too. Gorgeous flowers too early in the year.
Welcome to life on a warming planet!

I mean they were beautiful, but the timing was all wrong. At least that's how it seemed to me.

Not long after these blooms appeared, we had a "snow storm." Two of them, actually. 

On the day that we had the snowpocalypse captured in the photo above, we lost power in our house for nine hours. NINE HOURS! It was half an inch of snow!!!

On the night before the snowmaggedon event captured below, I stayed in a hotel one block from my church because that's how worried we were that I wouldn't be able to get to church for me to complete my morning responsibilities that day. The most dangerous part about that solo slumber party was having to dodge the drunken millennials who were celebrating St Patrick's day a weekend earlier in the hotel bar. Well, that and the middle of the night fire alarm that forced all the hotel guests to walk down the stairs to the frigid outdoors. I had to walk down eleven flights - but because it was on the night we turned our clocks ahead, I didn't even get the credit on my iPhone pedometer because the walk registered in the hour that was lost! Oh well... The good news is that I survived the snownado.

Anywho... I spent a lot of time staring at the trees and flowers that I was convinced had blossomed and bloomed before their time and I was saddened by their beauty because I was convinced that they would die in an ensuing cold snaps. I was convinced that theirs was "wasted beauty." 
Wasted flowers that would die before spring even arrived. 
Wasted color because it wouldn't last. 
Wasted miracle because they would disappear before we would have the chance to marvel at them. 
What a waste! 
I found myself feeling anger because global warming was messing up my preconceived notions of when and how spring and color and beauty could and should arrive. I'm not exactly sure who I was angry at, but I was mad. And sad. And frustrated. And more than a little bit hope-deprived.

On one morning unnecessarily warm February morning, my husband and I went for a walk.
It was another "too warm day for February." 
Too many trees and too many daffodils were in bloom too early.
I murmured something snappy about "wasted beauty," and my preposterously patient husband said, "What's wasteful about it?" 

Great question. 

How can beauty be wasted when we all get to see it and bask in it?
How can the miracle of flowers blooming, over and over, year after year, be a waste?
There is so much beauty all around us. Between us. Among us.
There is color and brightness, joy and so much to celebrate.

Certainly there is deep suffering.
A dear friend, a young, vibrant mother of four children under the age of ten, has been diagnosed with kanswer - again! 
Another friend is awaiting DACA documentation that will allow her to get back to work.
Someone I was recently introduced to is recovering from a kidney transplant - at the age of 27.
War continues in too many places to name.
Gun violence kills too many people every single day.
Political unrest. Injustice. 
School segregation.
Fear of overt racism on the rise.
Hunger. Abuse. 
You can name more than I can.
Yes, there's a lot of pain happening in the world.

But in the midst of all of the heartache and heart break
in the midst of the fear, the loathing, and the sorrow,
there is so much beauty.

There are snowmen to build in the few hours before it all melts.

There are tasty meals to consume while reading about how to do biblical exegesis. Fun fun!

There are heart-breaking and hope-restoring exhibits to see at local museums.

There are lectures and question & answer sessions by inspiring people like Krista Tippett and Clint Smith to attend and take copious notes about.

There is new music to listen and dance to. (You rock, Lizzie! That's my niece, folks.)
There are letters to write. 
There are sermons to preach.

There is moan-worthy poetry to soothe your soul. 
There is Easter poetry to prepare you for celebration resurrection. 

There is love to make. Or at least mow into the front lawn.


There is grace to receive.
There is forgiveness to grant and to be granted.
There is hope to nurture.
There are friendships to deepen.
There are connections to make.
There are hands to hold.

There are puppies to wean and give to new families and train and love.
There are children and grandchildren to tend.
There are babies to give birth to and welcome into the family.

There are some podcasts that make you laugh and live better 
and some podcasts that make you laugh and live deeper.
There are flowers to gaze at and birds to listen to.

There are double yolked eggs to eat.
There is morning coffee to sip slowly.
There is warm lemon water to enjoy.

Thanks, Steve, once again, for snapping me out of my hope-challenged mood.
There is no such thing as wasted beauty.
No such thing as wasted hope.

Nothing is wasted.
None of it is wasted. 
Not one bit of it. 

Thanks be to God!